European Rugby Champions Cup: Guscott previews maiden edition

By Jeremy GuscottRugby union analyst, BBC Sport
(left to right) Matt Giteau, Kyle Eastmond and George North
Matt Giteau, Kyle Eastmond and George North should all have a big impact in Europe this season

Top-tier European rugby is back - smaller but more concentrated than before, fewer teams but greater intensity from the off.

The new European Rugby Champions Cup has 20 teams - four fewer than the Heineken Cup it replaces - and with the weaker sides from the Pro12 absent having failed to qualify, Europe's premier club rugby competition is now undeniably contested by the continent's leading teams.

As a result there will be fewer easy games in the pools - competition will be cut-throat from the first weekend - and some pool match-ups already look like quarter-final games.

Toulon won the last two Heineken Cups and are aiming to become the first side to win a hat-trick of European titles. One thing is for certain, if they do so they will have been in some real battles along the way.

Down and out, or hard to discount?

Defeated Leicester players walk off after their hammering at Bath
Leicester were hammered 45-0 by Bath in the Premiership earlier this season

Injury-hit Leicester Tigers may be the biggest club in England but they are floundering in eighth place in the Premiership and the last time they were champions of Europe was back in 2002, when they beat Munster 15-9.

They are not alone when it comes to English clubs struggling to make an impression in Europe - in the last three seasons only Saracens, last season's beaten finalists, have made it as far as the semi-finals - and given the quality and size of squads in Ireland and France over the last few seasons, it is no surprise.

Leicester will do well just to get out of their pool this season as they have been drawn alongside Toulon and Ulster in a tough Pool Three.

Toulouse are rugby's kings of Europe, but the four-time champions are having big problems winning games this season - they have lost a scarcely-believable five of their nine French top-flight games and only climbed out of the bottom two by beating the mighty Toulon at the weekend.

When you have a three-quarter line with the likes of Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc, Florian Fritz, Gael Fickou, Yoann Huget and Luke McAlister or Toby Flood at fly-half, plus forwards such as Imanol Harinordoquy, Thierry Dusautoir and Yoann Maestri, it is hard to understand why they are languishing in the bottom half of the Top 14.

Imanol Harinordoquy and Gael Fickou celebrate a Toulouse try
With Imanol Harinordoquy up front and Gael Fickou out wide, Toulouse should be a match for anyone

Toulouse probably have had the biggest playing budget for many seasonsexternal-link not just within France but in Europe too, but they haven't won enough silverware given those resources.

The pressure is beginning to tell and the locals are starting to question head coach Guy Noves as well, even though he has coached them to the title four times.

Having said that, do not write off Toulouse - even though they have lost their mojo, they still have bags of talent and showed signs of life in their win over Toulon at the weekend.

And what about three-time champions Leinster? Not only have they lost the services of now-retired great Brian O'Driscoll, but stand-out players Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy are both out for significant periods of time because of injury.

They are currently down in sixth in the Pro12 but I would not be worried about Leinster's position in the table. They are pacing themselves, they only need to be in the top four to reach the play-offs and the teams above them are not too far away.

There may be no BOD this year but have no fear, Ben Te'o has arrived, and I assure you this is one player you are going to love watching.

Te'o has been playing rugby league in the NRL in Australia and was part of the Rabbitohs side that won the Grand Final this season, alongside Bath-bound Sam Burgess.

He's got size, power, pace and skills that will be effective in attack and defence, and despite their losses, with him in harness Leinster should win their pool.

These three will light up the tournament

Kyle Eastmond dives over to score for Bath against Leicester
Kyle Eastmond combines elusive running with superb distribution at 12 for Bath

At 5ft 7in, Bath inside centre Kyle Eastmond is proof that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes. He is really quick off the mark and as rapid as anyone in the tournament over 30 metres, plus he has great footwork too.

What sets the England international above other centres is his distribution. His passing execution is as good as it gets and the rugby league convert passes the ball superbly - he does not just fire out spin passes, he does it the old-fashioned way and makes it easy for his team-mates to run on to.

Even while running at speed he can spot a gap to put others through and, with outside centre Jonathan Joseph seeing the same opportunities, they make a great combination.

With Jonny Wilkinson having retired, Matt Giteau has assumed the mantle of backline leader for two-time champions Toulon.

Matt Giteau in action for Toulon
With Jonny Wilkinson retired, Matt Giteau now pulls the strings for Toulon from 10 or 12

I don't think it makes much difference whether the former Australia back plays at 10 or 12 for the French club because he is so influential.

Like Eastmond he is quick over 20-30 yards and can also spot a gap, and there is no doubt that with him running the show rather than the retired Wilkinson - who was so good at the scoreboard ticking over but lacked Giteau's flair - that we will see slightly different Toulon this year.

I said at the start of the season that George North was truly world class, and the 6ft 4in Wales winger duly delivered with a hat-trick on the very first weekend of the season.

That is the kind of big impact you expect from North - he has pace, power and size, and I expect him to make a big impression in Europe in a classy Northampton side.

And let us not forget he is still only 22!

So can anyone beat Toulon?

I am not convinced that the absence of Wilkinson from their playing line-up will prevent Toulon from securing a third European Cup in a row.

History suggests it is impossible but this team is full of global talent that has won big before, and it is becoming a habit. There is no getting away from the fact that Toulon have so many X-factor players - they can play poorly as a team and have one of their stars suddenly turn a game on its head with a moment of magic.

Jerry's tips to reach the quarter-finals
Pool winners: Clermont, Leinster, Toulon, Bath, Northampton. Three best runners-up:Ulster, Toulouse, Racing Metro
See the pool tables hereexternal-link

The English challenge will come from Bath, Northampton and Saracens, with Leinster and Ulster heading the Irish threat, but the brutal truth is that it is hard to see a Welsh or Scottish team seriously threatening to go all the way.

I am backing Toulon to complete the first ever hat-trick of European titles.


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